Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A dedication to academic freedom at the University of Montana? Maybe not so much...


Welcome to the new world of censorship -- or at least something uncomfortably close to it.

On the national scene, all of the attention is on the subtle pressure that the Obama administration placed on Google to get the company to remove a video clip deemed offensive by Muslims. The government of course didn't tell the company to remove it -- they just asked Google to review whether it met their policies for allowing videos to be posted.

Amusing, since most usage policies for anything on the internet are so long and complicated that no-one actually reads them. The policies are written to keep lawyers happy, one can be sure, and to protect the company from lawsuits. The government doubtless believed that somewhere in all of that verbiage would be found a clause that Google could use to yank the video, and that Google would be intimidated enough to do so. After all, that video is the cause of all of the rioting in the Mideast -- the current administration's policies and weaknesses could have had nothing to do with it.

The Obama administration was more or less standing there with a metaphorical tire iron in its metaphorical hands, saying, "nice little company you have there -- be a shame if anything happened to it."

Google is to be commended for not caving in to the pressure.

This must be the wave of the future for the new censorship, however, since even our governor here in Montana has gotten in on the act, twisting a few arms over at the University of Montana because of a study done by a law school professor.

Apparently, the professor was hired (in her own private time) to do a study for Cablevision/Bresnan examining certain aspects of Montana tax policy. This sort of thing is done all the time -- studies for companies, for non-profits, for various interest groups, etc. While clearly stating in legislative testimony that her work represented her own opinion, and not that of the University of Montana, she neglected to include that caveat in the written report. Her bad, and she admits it.

But, Governor Schweitzer was displeased and got on the phone to the president of the university. According to the governor, here was how he started the conversation:

"I asked him (President Engstrom) if it was the policy of the University of Montana to shift $100 million in taxes from a dozen out-of-state corporations to 45,000 Montana businesses and 350,000 homes,” Schweitzer said in an interview Friday.

Engstrom said he didn’t know what Schweitzer was talking about, the governor said, so he told the UM president: “You have a person who represents herself as a UM professor. You assume that someone who represents the law school represents the University of Montana.”

One would hope that the head of an academic institution would have looked into it, apologized for the missing disclaimer, made sure it was corrected, and left it at that. One would hope that the head of an academic institution would have made a clear statement about the importance of university professors having the academic freedom to do studies without having to worry about whether politically powerful people liked the conclusions or not. One would hope wrongly.

Instead, the timorous president had this to say:

“I’m sorry that one of our faculty members engaged in an activity that did not fully comply with existing policy,” Engstrom said. “Her activity may have created the impression that the university has a position on the specific matter of property taxation. It does not."

So far, so good, right? Yes indeed, but it turns out that he later contradicts himself -- apparently the University of Montana actually does have a position on taxation:

“Clearly, as a university, we are interested in policies and practices that permit optimal investment in higher education. To the extent that Professor Juras was making recommendations that decrease resources available to the state, she was not speaking for the university.”

One gathers from this that any recommendations that "decrease resources to the state" are contrary to U of M policy. Come again? So if a university professor identifies (for the sake of argument) elements of Montana tax policy that are unfair, contradictory, or even unconstitutional -- and if acting on that information would "decrease resources to the state" -- a professor would be speaking contrary to the the position of the University. After all a university's primary interest is getting "optimal investment in higher education." Not putting out academically sound work, and certainly not searching for the truth. Just getting more funding.

U of M's president should be ashamed of himself for that statement. His primary interest in a conflict like this with a powerful authority figure like Governor Schweitzer should be to shield his faculty from political pressure. Do we want a Republican governor putting the screws to the U of M president if a faculty member publishes some sort of liberal nonsense? I certainly don't.

When a high-level government official asks questions like these, it is not benign, since governors and U.S. Presidents have a lot of power that can be used at their discretion. Everyone knows this. Who knows which junior faculty member at a Montana university is looking over research currently in progress, thinking, "hm, maybe I just don't need the negative attention this might get me from the powers that be..."

The next interesting question is this -- will there be an outcry from the University of Montana faculty about this episode? Will they be calling for President Engstrom's head? Sadly, one suspects that they are just as politically liberal as most university faculties and that therefore they will remain quiet -- at least until a future university president caves to pressure from a Republican official.

Meanwhile, we are all learning that when a government official picks up the phone and asks us whether we are following our policies, the real message may be, "you just did something we don't like -- care to rethink it?"

What is truly interesting is that in these particular cases, a university that supposedly has a quasi-religious obligation to protect academic freedom went straight into groveling mode, while it was a private company -- Google -- that seemed willing to take a chance with an irate federal government rather than compromise their commitment to the open exchange of information.

5 comments:

Gregg Smith said...

I'm curious whether the University would so quickly disclaim a left-leaning study if it were funded by an off-campus group?

Brad Anderson said...

Exactly. We can of course never know, but I suspect that a Republican governor would be hesitant to do anything like this regarding a left-leaning study.

Not because he might not be irritated enough to want to, but because he would know that it could turn into a public relations nightmare.

Tom Balek said...

The loss of an independent and motivated free press is a sad thing. If a Republican governor reacted to a left-leaning study, he would be excoriated in the press.

Brad Anderson said...

I think you are right. Another interesting thing is that when the article appeared in the print edition of the Gazette, the full text didn't appear.

I understand editing for space, but it is interesting that the Gazette editors left out the entire section in which the professor tells her side and talks about academic freedom.

THE WAKING GIANT said...

Yes, indeed. Those "educators" are entitled with a First Amendment Right, unless it contradicts the lies and deceit the DIM party spews each day. We have those so-called "educators" to blame for creating entire generations of glassy eyed idiots who vote for a living instead of working for a living. They've been brainwashed to embrace the very enemies of this once great Nation. Sure am glad I'm old enough that I won't have to live long in the world those idiots are creating for themselves. They should ALL be in handcuffs awaiting trial. I look forward to saying buh-bye to schweitzer and his cowpoke branding iron veto programs.